Saban quickly climbed the coaching ranks and recommended Pinkel as his replacement when he left after one season at Toledo to become the Cleveland Browns' defensive coordinator in 1991.
Pinkel, who held that job until leaving for Missouri 10 years later, had been Washington's offensive coordinator under James.
"Nick, every time I needed a coach, he wasn't available," James said. "I would have hired him in a heartbeat. He got head jobs earlier and went in the NFL. I was impressed with him because I'd see him at the convention once or twice a year and I was impressed with how far he had come in defensive knowledge."
James spent a day with Saban and his team in California before the national title game in Pasadena after the 2009 season.
He also scored some tickets for his granddaughter to the title game against LSU two years later. Saban had to turn down his invitation to the Kent State reunion but he was still a topic of discussion.
"I think the whole team just kind of had the same feeling that I did: This was one of the guys that I played with and I know, and look what he's done with his life," James said. "And he's making, what, $6 million or so. He's done well."